The government has recently announced the inception of the UK’s Net Zero Hydrogen Fund – a £240 million investment intended to pave the way for new green hydrogen production projects. Importantly for installers, this demonstrates a further commitment to diversifying the UK’s low carbon energy production, over and above the nationwide Boiler Upgrade Scheme, and the Heat Pump Ready programme which is currently on trial in Cambridgeshire and Bristol.
The government was criticised when it announced the Boiler Upgrade Scheme back in 2021 as many believed it had failed to recognise hydrogen’s potential role in lowering the carbon emissions produced by Britain’s homes.
Critics said the scheme, which is heavily geared towards heat pumps, was an “all eggs in one basket” approach that failed to consider the appropriateness of heat pumps for the varied composition of the UK’s housing stock.
As the scheme has evolved, however, ministers seem to have realised that a combination of both heat pumps and hydrogen (among other renewable fringe technologies) is the ideal way forward to make low carbon heating accessible to all.
The story so far
Plans for the UK’s switch to hydrogen are already well underway in the form of the Hydrogen Village trial project (due to take place in either Whitby or Redcar, with a decision due this autumn). Navien is involved with the project which, from 2025, will see around 2,000 homes in one of the villages swap from natural gas to 100% hydrogen in a bid to demonstrate hydrogen’s feasibility for the UK’s heating, hot water, and cooking needs. If these field trials are successful and hydrogen is deemed a viable fuel source by government and its consultation partners, it’s likely to spark rapid change in our towns and cities.
Of course, the rollout of hydrogen to a small village is remarkably different to changing the gas network of a small town or that of a large city, and, understandably, there are concerns from both installers and homeowners about how this will work in practice. It’s a challenge that will require heavy collaboration between industry bodies, government, manufacturers, and homeowners.
Learning from the past
While using hydrogen in the gas network is considered to be a fairly new concept, you may be surprised to learn that hydrogen actually ran through the nation’s pipes as part of ‘town gas’ before the 1967 change-over to North Sea natural gas. This switch saw some 40 million appliances, spread across 14 million customers, adapted to use natural gas.
It was overseen by Sir Dennis Rooke, former Chairman of the British Gas Corporation, who was widely held responsible for the successful delivery of natural gas to the UK. The conversion process was so efficient that 2.3 million properties a year were converted in the mid-70s at a cost of around £3 billion in today’s money.
The National Transmission System (NTS) implemented in the 1960s for gas distribution was extended in a fashion similar to what we expect to see for hydrogen; moving region by region until all key areas are completed.
The vast majority (85%) of UK homes are currently powered by natural gas-fired central heating connected to the NTS, and the very same network is expected to be used to transport hydrogen to homes and businesses. The network is already partially prepared for 100% hydrogen, with the yellow polyurethane pipes used to safely transport hydrogen already making up a large proportion of it.
Of course, replacing the remaining iron pipework will be more problematic, however gas distribution companies like Cadent, SGN, and Wales & West Utilities are already in the process of replacing iron pipes as part of their ongoing routine maintenance, minimising mass disruption in the hydrogen village trial leads to mass rollout.
Similarly, most boiler manufacturers have already begun developing boilers that accept the 20% blend – something that is expected to be introduced to the grid in the coming years. Approximately eight of the top boiler manufacturers, including Navien, have developed a 100% hydrogen-ready boiler in preparation for the wholesale change.
As for gas-powered appliances like fires and gas hobs, most have a lifespan of around 10-15 years, so hydrogen ready models will begin to be phased in naturally as old models reach the end of their life.
Like our 100% hydrogen-ready boilers, hydrogen ready gas-fired appliances can be quickly and easily converted to burn 100% hydrogen gas by changing just a few components – and without homeowners having to buy new versions. Those installers who are currently trained to do changeovers from natural gas to LPG will know how easy this process is, and it’s likely changeovers to hydrogen will be very similar.
While collaboration between boiler manufacturers, appliance manufacturers, and installers is limited at the moment, it will become essential if the government give the go-ahead after the Whitby or Redcar field trials.
What does this mean?
For installers, the switch to hydrogen won’t be as difficult as might be expected.
Unlike upskilling to install heat pumps, the switch to hydrogen won’t require an entirely new set of skills and it should be relatively easy for gas engineers to apply their existing knowledge. The technologies will, in the most part, remain the same outside of a new fuel source.
Of course, hydrogen is far more combustible than natural gas, so in addition to learning how to safely work with the gas, it will be imperative that homeowners stay up to date with their annual services. This is a job that will likely fall on installers, in conjunction with much-needed government campaigns on the safety risks presented by not undergoing regular maintenance.
The Energy and Utility Skills and the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers are currently working with the government to develop safety-critical Technical Standards, as well as delivering a robust and enduring foundation for gas engineering training and competence which we expect to be published towards the end of 2023.
Once this is completed, it’s critical that installer training is mandated by government if the rollout is to run smoothly. It must form a part of college courses, and re-qualification certifications for installers already in the trade. This will ensure any qualified installer will be able to install and convert hydrogen boilers within the next five years.
In the meantime, it would be productive for installers to begin having conversations with manufacturers about the way the change over to hydrogen will work in practice. Manufacturers including Navien are monitoring field trials closely, and will incorporate the relevant training into their courses if they are deemed a success.
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